A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
by Kate Summerscale
Walker and Company – 2008
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
While my interest in the Sensational Novel has been short-lived (I first read Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in the summer of 2008 and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White during December of that same year), it is very quickly becoming a favorite genre and one in which I would like to dig deep and learn much. Not only does this non-fiction story contain many of the same exciting elements of a “sensational” novel, but there is a wealth of educational material that has helped enlighten me on the subject – and the time period.
The author initially tells us on page 82:
This was the original country-house murder mystery, a case in which the investigation had to find not a person but a person’s hidden self. It was pure whodunnit, a contest of intelligence and nerve between the detective and the killer.
As I mentioned in my Sunday Salon post earlier this week: It is a true account of the murder of a young boy in Victorian England…. The most likely suspects appear to be the boy’s father (who could have been having an affair with the nursery maid and when the young toddler woke up in the middle of the night and spied them together, the father felt that he had to silence the lad so that he could not tattle to his mother of this indiscretion) OR the toddler’s sixteen year old half -sister who possibly inherited her deceased mother’s propensity for madness. As I finished the story, these are still the two likely suspects, and the case is indeed solved, although not without a few twists and turns along the way. There are even some loose ends tied at the very end of the story that could come as a surprise to some.
I agree with others who have reviewed this book (Sandy’s review is here and Jackie’s review is here), there is a vast amount of detailed, factual information that the reader must decipher, and while this makes for a very interesting read, it also makes for a slow, methodical read (it is almost as if the reader is placed in the position of the detective and forced to ponder every piece of factual evidence). The bibliography at the end of the novel attests to the painstaking research that the author conducted in order to write the book, and the nearly three pages of “List of Characters” found at the front of the book provided a clue that the book would be dense with details. Personally, I enjoyed all the details of this particular case, but did at times become sluggish when reading the details of other cases in which Mr. Whicher was involved. That is really my only tiny criticism.
However…..the real details that I absolutely LOVED were the constant references that Summerscale made to the sensational novelists of the time – and their works: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and The Woman in White, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. These authors followed the real-life thriller with great interest, and their subsequent classics were greatly influenced by this tale. I wish to re-read the book again, just to glean more background information on these popular works.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this book truly educated me on this particular genre of literature, and I would like to end the review with a couple of quotes that illustrate this fact.
While the crime fiction of the 1830s and the 1840s had inhabited the rookeries of London, sensational crime in the 1850s had begun to invade the middle-class home, in fiction and in fact. (page 157)
Sensational novels of the 1860s, such as Lady Audley’s Secret, dealt in what Henry James called those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors…..the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the busy London lodgings’. Their secrets were exotic but their settings immediate…..Many feared that sensation novels were a ‘virus’ that might create the corruption they described, forming a circle of excitement – sexual and violent – that coursed through every stratum of society. These books, the original psychological thrillers, were seen as agents of social collapse, even in the way they were consumed…..Sensation novels called forth readers’ brutish sensations, their animal appetites; they threatened religious belief and social order….. (page 219)
And finally, let me leave you with a prevalent thought of the Victorian era that found rather shocking (and made me grateful that I was born at a different place and time):
‘From twelve or fourteen to eighteen or twenty is that period in life in which the tide of natural affection runs the lowest, leaving the body and the intellect unfettered and unweakened in the work of development, and leaving the heart itself open for the strong passions and overwhelming preferences that will then seize it….sad to say, it is the softer sex especially which is said to go through a period of almost utter heartlessness.’ Girls were ‘harder and more selfish’ than boys; in preparation for the sexual passion to come, their hearts were emptied of all tenderness…..…..most adolescent girls (in the middle class Victorian era) were given to murderous desires. (page 233)